At three year, my son recognizes the importance of being the first in line. Whether he is the engine on the choo-choo train in his preschool class, or pretending to be a race car, “Patrick, takes the lead!”

Childhood desires of being first could very well explain why, when it comes to adult decisions, most of us like to put people in lines, hand out numbers to order chaos and design programs with first come, first serve in mind. I’d imagine, however, that at some point in all of our comings of age we could each identify a moment where these philosophies of “who’s on first” left us or someone else in a less than just predicament.

For these reasons, I’d suggest a first come, first serve strategy isn’t always the most appropriate way to divide resources, prioritize people for services or determine who gets to be at the front of the line. First come, first serve is a fine methodology if everyone is dealt the same deck of cards, but as human beings born into this world with varying gifts, fluctuating challenges and a range of starting places its hardly a fair competition to assume that everyone has the same equal shot at being first.

Thus, the battle we face in homeless services every day: limited resources, too many people who need them, but for the sake of everyone’s sanity there has to be a process.

In a conundrum of limited resources, some would suggest a priority for those that demonstrate the highest desire to change, the cream of the crop who can prove their sustainability and promise through their achievements in local programs. The argument of course is that the more sustainable cases will require fewer resources, bring about better outcomes and help those who are most “deserving”–deserving, of course, being defined as the ones who did what they were supposed to do and/or earned it. While many homeless programs have operated on such principle for years, there are new theories of engagement that are now calling for a different way of thinking.

What service providers are realizing is that the philosophy of first come, first serve has created generations of humans who will never be the first in line and, therefore, always fall short of threshold by which they might access a community’s limited resources.  In homeless services, the ability to be the first in line is actually a indication of someone who probably needs the LEAST amount of resources to end their own homelessness. Those who are fast enough, can self-advocate well,  and possess enough skills to prove sustainability, thus getting the front of the line, are most likely to overcome their circumstances and improve their situation with minimal assistance.

While prioritizing the most sustainable situations may spread precious dollars across more households, it does not consider that the higher barrier, more vulnerable and chronic homeless cases are least likely to end their own homelessness. Without assistance, they remain in shelters and on the street for months and years on end. Not only does it cost our public resources–police, hospitals, courts, jails–dearly when these folks are less the community priority, the longer someone experiences homelessness the harder it is for them to stabilize in housing later on.

People who struggle to be first in line do not all of a sudden develop the capability to work their way to the top. They get discouraged, they lose their dignity and they give up. Sooner or later, they  see little to no point in getting in line at all.

While setting resource and service priorities based on vulnerability can be more expensive and demanding of staff time,  it is the best community investment. It is the most geared to keeping people from dying on the street. It focused on those who have the least ability to self-resolve. And it attacks the homelessness issue at its very core.